Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Belle of the Brawl*

This is a totally political post.  While it began in the Clinton years, it was Newt who had power.  The current admin leaves society issues to the family unless it's to keep some people alive.  Well it takes a village.  And our society is aging but we have no social policies in place.  So most families do the best they can do. 

I got a Masters in Social Work with a concentration in clinical geriatrics while this was happening in the naive belief that the problems of the middle class, non Medicaid eligible would be addressed.  You have to be very rich or poor to get decent help in this country.  And if you have any assets and you're older with family you love, get a trust.  I took the link from the government.  They recommend it.

While I would love to take credit for the title; it's the name of Moxie and my friend, Sar's new blog.

This is the most personal post I have ever written. It's also the saddest; it's about things that I have been trying to talk about for fourteen years.

Yes Bring it on! is a political blog. But politics should primarily be about issues. Here it is aging, single adult daughters, taxes, health insurance, Medicare and Medicaid in one post.

My dad died suddenly when I had been working at Social Security for two months. I took three days off and on the fourth day the managers asked which of two offices I would want to work in. Frankly they both were in horrible neighborhoods, in places I wasn't too familiar with.

I was in the first External, not promoted from within SSI Claims Rep training class in eight years. Have always found it ironic that Bush 1 tried to put back together what Reagen tried to dismantle. I had applied for positions in San Diego and Miami, and the transfers came through. I had been in a semi-relationship with a character actor who had moved to LA; he had many male straight friends; it was perfect.

But my mom had macular degeneration. She was of the first generation of people to outlive their body parts through diet, good health care, and all the rest.

My mom's macular had begun when my parents were in a photo safari in Kenya; she thought it was her new eyeglasses. Maybe something could have been done then. We'll never know. Ultimately she lost all her eyesight except for a shadow here; a shadow there. She wasn't demented and yet many people treated her as if she were.

New York was falling apart in 1991; we were still feeling the effects of the 10/17/87 stock market fall and ensuing recession. I lived in the richest zip code in America, 10021, and would count the Old English Ale bottles I passed on the way to the subway. In the morning I would wake up bag people sleeping in both the vestibule and the first floor hall. There were three apartments on the first floor; the first was unoccupied; the second was mine; the third was occupied by girls my super thought were prostitutes; and I thought were drug dealers because people would come and go every five minutes at night. When I had overnight guests they would stay up and count; I had become impervious to it.

Oh I was so ready for a change. I made it all the way to Riverdale, The Bronx. If there is one place that I will never write nicely about it's Riverdale; my time there was hell.

I don't drive; the world's safer that way. It would take me about three hours to get to her house on Long Island. Keeping my mother independent took two daughters, a major part of my sanity, and almost my sister's and my relationship.

Estate planners often use a lifetime trust in place of a will. Like a will, a lifetime trust can be used to provide for the disposition of assets and has the advantage of avoiding probate. An advantage that a lifetime trust has over a will is that it also can be used to manage assets during a person's lifetime. For example a lifetime trust can be a useful planning tool for incapacity because it can be established and controlled by a competent person and later continue in operation under a successor trustee if the person establishing the trust becomes unable to manage his or her affairs.

My sister paid her bills and managed her portfolio; I took care of her doctor's appointments and what I later would learn were "psycho social" needs. My mom didn't want to have a trust though my dad was a CPA and my mom knew very well that she could control it. Since she couldn't do her own paperwork the only control left to her was not having a trust. I knew I should have urged her to do it, but she was my mom. My sister and I jointly consulted our mother on all financial decisions.

I had the brilliant idea to leave Social Security and get a Masters in Social Work with a concentration in clinical geriatrics. I took a year off to try out school and be even more available for my mother. I had left home at eighteen; 20 years later, there I was again. I didn't go out every day or even every week, but I spoke to my mom, five times a day. And whenever she would need me I would be there. I became expert at speaking to doctors and forcing them to speak to my mother. I became expert in old age, but I wasn't.

My parents had raised my sister and I to be independent. It was easier for my sister; she married, and several years later bought my mother's house when my mom moved to a large apartment complex that was a NORC; Naturally Occurring Retirement Community. It has an eighteen hole golf course, a country club, an arcade which looks like a movie set of a beautiful city, and activity rooms. My mom loved book clubs, discussions, museums, anything cultural really.

She wasn't very good at being dependent. She wasn't very good at becoming blind in her 70's and 80's

She was good at meeting people; but my always sociable mother became shy and insecure. She thought that most people treated her as if she were demented and as her own sisters refused to visit, I would have to agree with her. I no longer really speak to most of my mom's family. We had once been very close.

Newt Gingrich was elected shortly after I began school. For all of you who think it was a good thing; I'm not going to get into "changing welfare as we knew it." It affected my life incredibly.

I expected to be able to discuss these things at school but my top rated grad school of social work, didn't have one Masters Degree level course on aging from 94-96; they had before and after. I could have taken a PHD level course but was advised against the courses as I already knew the content from my field placement and research classes. The larger school had a center on aging but it was distinct from the social work school which made no sense at all. I did an Independent Study on Abuse because I had become good at recognizing it. And sometimes I wasn't sure if I was becoming an abusive daughter or not. Elder abuse can be hard to recognize; it's not only physical but neglect, fraud and other things. It's not mandated reporting.

My mom couldn't go to activities by herself as she couldn't navigate the hallway to the elevator and the arcade. She wanted me to fix this problem and I couldn't unless I moved in with her, brought her down and back up. Many other daughters might have done this. I couldn't.

I couldn't fix any of my mother's problems. Though I passed the state licensing exam while still in school, had been given my own hall in the nursing home I did my field placement in at the beginning of my second year, had a 3.84 cum, and an outstanding field placement evaluation, I felt like a failure.

My mom had been my best friend since I was a kid. I know that sounds strange, but we had a closeness and a friendship that's more typical in this generation of parents and children. I was slowly losing both my mom and my best friend. Oh yeah, I was adopted, for the record. I forget.

I stayed at the nursing home, though I had been offered some great field placements because it was familiar and I couldn't handle change that year. It was exciting the second year; I worked with two psychiatrists, both female, who had started geriatric mental health clinics. By the time I graduated the clinics had disbanded; victims of the Newt cuts.

Social work salaries were the only salaries to go down in 1996. When I found myself almost fighting for a $28,000 year a job I knew it was time to get real. It was a damn insult. If I didn't find a coop in Manhattan by the summer of 1997, I was going to be priced out of the market. I'm good at trends; it was kind of obvious to me. If I didn't find a coop in Manhattan I was going to lose my mind. Worked at the nursing home; went home to another or a building that felt like one.

I will spare you the rest. I bought a coop; my mom consented to get an aide five days a week, four hours a day. She wasn't Medicaid eligible; something I could have made her in a day, and I heard a lot about how stupid I was for not making her go on Medicaid as earlier I had heard about how I shouldn't have let her eat by herself. These were PHD's in Social Work who provided such incredible solace. They were experts in capability; they knew that the reasonable man standard no longer applied. A person could be capable in one area but not another, yet judged well enough to live alone.

My mom remembered every phone number; she could take five medications a day by herself. She was bright but blind and scared. Something happened to her after 9/11. It took the life out of her; she sounded different; at times I thought she had suddenly become demented. But two weeks after it, she said that there was a question she could only ask me:

"Do you think it's repercussion for everything we have done?"

I was shocked as I was in full patriotic mode. Fortunately I could speak in my normal voice and say:

"Some people think so. I don't."

She told me that sometimes she couldn't find her way around her apartment. I was the only person who knew this and I did nothing. May G-d or whoever forgive me. I knew that my mom wanted to die in her apartment and I knew that something wasn't right.

She fell in her bathroom and died fifteen minutes later. It is only this year that I have begun to lose the guilt and the extreme mourning. I'm me again for the first time in a decade.

But her death was only the beginning. Though we wouldn't have had to pay estate taxes this year, we had to pay full taxes for 2001. We live in New York City and thus had to pay city and state taxes. The highest.

This isn't going to make me real popular. My sister and I had never asked our mother for a cent. She would give me a hundred dollars many times when I saw her, but I would put out money for things for her and never asked for it back. My sister did the equivalent of a full time bookkeeper/accountant; I was my mom's private fully trained and accredited social worker. Even when I was working or in school. Both my sister and I stopped going far away. Neither of us would be more than three hours or so away from home.

I spent so much time at doctors offices with my mom, I neglected my own visits; I neglected many things because my entire psychic energy was tied up with my mom's. I don't know how else to explain it. I'm paying for all that now.

I am glad that my mom never went on Medicaid. I met so many people who were so much richer on Medicaid. I can understand it, but I don't think it's ethical or good. Yet damn, the Medigap was so complicated. Now sometimes I'm glad my mom's dead just so we don't have to look at the new insurance policies.

If my mom had a trust we wouldn't have given the government a huge chunk of money. Yes there would have still been the costs of probate, but...our mother didn't pay us. I didn't get any social security credits for the time I wasn't officially working or in school though I ran a hall and took the place of a part time social worker. My sister didn't get any during the ten year period. We deserved the money that went to the government.

No CPA, broker or lawyer could believe that she didn't have a trust. She was our mother; it was her wish to retain control if only in name. I feel badly about the money; I really believe that we earned it. But first we were daughters.

I can't believe that it took The New York Times until last Friday to discover this growing problem. I hope that people begin discussing it now.

I read in a blog today that The Times article could stop girls from becoming brain surgeons. Not at all; no 22 year old is going to stop a career because of something that could possibly happen when she's 50--I was adopted so my parents were older and my sister and I were younger. No, I was going through a mid career change, and my sister had just begun to work for my dad as she had an MBA.

I had a friend who finally moved out of her parents home when she was 38, a Senior VP at a Fortune 100 company, bought her own home, and her mother became severely demented and had to move in with her.

My mom and I would joke about my living with her. We figured that we would last two days before we began to want to kill each other. We wanted to anyway. Yet my mom remained my idol. It's so hard to explain, and at each aging symposium I would go to, I would expect to discuss similar situations to mine. But everybody either had pat solutions or no solution at all.

For fourteen years I have been trying to get a dialogue going on the problems of aging in America, very specifically the aging parent issue. Next very selfishly I want a dialogue on "who is going to be there for me", because while I was immersed in my mom's life I stopped my life. I looked like I had a life, but I was going through the motions.

I had never known what it was like to be depressed before. I know now. I knew how to be an independent adult; I didn't know how to be whatever this was.

The Times calls it "The daughter track," I call it the train to nowhere

Posted by Pia Savage at 12:01 AM in Current Affairs, Economics, Politics, Science, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Sunday, November 20, 2005

It Pays to Be a Defense Contractor...

...when there's a Good Ol' Boy in office.


The New York Times reported on Thursday that the US Navy is asking the federal government to bail out Northrop-Grumman to the tune of $2.8 billion for Katrina-related expenses. ($2 billion now, another $800 million if the first request goes through.) That's a payment to a single company for more than the total amount of Katrina-related housing relief being extended to citizens.

Now I can understand, in theory, why the Navy might want this. If Northrop can't deliver ships on time then project expenses go up, the local economy suffers, the admiral can't water-ski, yadda yadda yadda.

There's just one problem: the root cause of all this falls squarely on Northrop's shoulders, and it's some combination of fraud and mismanagement. The first possibility, fraud, is mentioned in the NYT article. The $2.8 billion price tag sounds suspiciously high to some, and it's been suggested that this might include some wink-wink money for unrelated shipbuilding overruns.

But let's say, just for shits and giggles, that the $2.8 billion is a legitimate figure for restoration and business interruption losses. That still leaves a second reality -- mismanagement -- which isn't even considered in the NYT article.

Northrop-Grumman is one of the few publicly-traded major defense contractors. That means that we can sneak a peek at their balance sheet whenever we feel like it.  And it turns out that they were $33 billion dollars in the black as of December 04 -- how about that?!? Not too shabby.  Pretty much kills any argument that they might not have been financially able to insure themselves sufficiently.

Northrop-Grumman surely knew, being located in the Gulf region, that hurricane losses were a real possibility. It's also reasonable to assume that they had in mind a ballpark figure for the total assets, inventory, operating expenses, ongoing project expenses and projected disaster-recovery costs at that location. After all, they had a regulatory need to report this data on an ongoing basis. So how is it then that the company suddenly finds itself underinsured to the tune of almost three billion dollars? And why is it the taxpayers' responsibility to bail them out?

All things considered, if we have cash just lying around to reward a profitable company for failing to adequately insure itself against a catastrophic loss (which we clearly don't -- have you seen the budget lately?) then our first priority should instead be to provide additional relief to private citizens who've lost everything.  I say fuck 'em.

Posted by joesnitty at 12:44 AM in Economics | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Pat Robertson and Hugo Chavez

As we all know, this past summer Pat Robertson called for the assassination of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.  He’s “apologized” since then, but he still has Chavez in his crosshairs.

Robertson is privy to  some incredible intelligence information  that nobody else has.  Where does he get this info — from God?  According to Robertson’s secret hotline, Chavez tried to funnel money to Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks.  He’s also trying to obtain nuclear materials from Iran.

Sounds like a variation on “the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein has sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”  Is there a pattern here?  Let’s see, “Weapons of Mass Destruction!” has already been done.  Let’s change the wording a little.

Robertson said “The truth is, this man is setting up a Marxist-type dictatorship in Venezuela, he’s trying to spread Marxism throughout South America, he’s negotiating with the Iranians to get nuclear material and he also sent $US 1.2 million in cash to Osama bin Laden right after 9/11.  I apologized and I said I will be praying for him, but one day we will be staring at nuclear weapons and it won't be (Hurricane) Katrina facing New Orleans, it’s going to be a Venezuelan nuke.”

In addition to getting exclusive intelligence information — from God or whoever — Pat Robertson is also a meteorologist.     The forecast:  fire and brimstone, hurricanes, earthquakes, leading to the End of Times — and then The Rapture.  Hallelujah!!

Now, is Pat Robertson just an oddball, a wacko has-been televangelist who’s barely tolerated by our government?  Or is there a method here?  Maybe Robertson is serving a purpose.  Instead of the Bush Administration having to do even more saber-rattling — leave it to someone like Pat.  And if anyone calls him on it, they can just say “oh, come on, nobody listens to that doddering old fool.  Just let him ramble.  He’s harmless.”

Our government is very concerned about Hugo Chavez.   That is, the corporations that have our government by the shorthairs are threatened by him.  He’s a Leftist; his ambition is to redistribute wealth and reduce the gap between rich and poor.  This is intolerable to Bechtel, Halliburton, the oil companies and the international banking cartel.

OK, so his government sucks.  He’s taken away a lot of freedoms that Venezuela has enjoyed since 1958.  Do you think that’s why our government is worried about him?  Riiight.

Venezuela, along with Bolivia  to a lesser extent, has been thumbing its nose at its corporate colonizers.  Like most of Latin America, there’s a huge gap between Venezuela’s rich and poor.  The wealthiest people are mostly of European ancestry, and the poor — who make up the vast majority — are mostly Indians.  Chavez is trying — without much success so far — to remedy this.

Venezuela is experimenting with the kind of “socialism” that  Guatemala  was trying in the early 1950s.  The CIA organized a coup and overthrew their government in 1954.

If our government is terrified of communism spreading throughout Latin America, the best way to counter it would be to rein in the excesses of the corporations that control this region.  When millions of poor people are treated like just so much raw material by their colonizers, communism or socialism might sound like an alternative.  The grass is always greener…

Our “leaders” probably won’t drum up much interest by talking about the rights of Halliburton and the oil companies to acquire even more wealth.  It makes a much better sales pitch to push the right buttons — Communism is spreading like a cancer throughout Latin America!  Venezuela is acquiring nuclear weapons from Iran!  Chavez is donating money to Osama bin Laden!

Well, whaddya think?  Shall we topple Hugo Chavez?  Come on, it’ll be a cakewalk.  Our soldiers will be greeted as liberators.  They’ll be showered with candy and flowers by throngs of grateful Venezuelans.

Cross-posted at Who Hijacked Our Country

Posted by Tom Harper at 03:01 PM in Economics, Military, Politics | Permalink | Comments (48) | TrackBack

Friday, October 07, 2005

Who should I trust? Why should I trust them?

I just lost my post and I'm angry and sick.  Let me try to reconstruct it.

Yesterday I got my $400 rebate check for owning a coop in New York City during, the attached note said, "difficult times".  I was going to return it with a note stating that the city needs it more than I do.  But that's not true; the check pays for almost half a month's maintainence, and I'm expecting prices to rise dramatically due to circumstances beyond anybody's control.

Yesterday morning I first heard that Karl Rove will have to give testimony to a federal Grand Jury and there is a good chance that he will be indicted.  Yesterday morning, I gave a damn, and I probably will next week.

As many of you know I live in Manhattan as does my best friend, Lucia, who works in a building atop Penn Station.  She has an almost fifteen year old daughter who feels everything intensely.  My friend has to keep it together both for her sake and her daughter.  But I don't.

I'm not going to reconstruct the part about how the Channel Four (NBC) reporter sat on the news that the federal government had issued a specific subway terrorist warning to the city and sat on it for two days. 

Nor am I going to reconstruct the part about how my local alt/rock NPR station (WFUV --on the Internet) advised people all morning not to go to Penn Station.  It was closed for two and half hours; there were people dressed in biohazardous suits examining things.  Turned out to be a soda can filled with things.  A street was closed because a suspicious bag was found.  Turned out to be old clothes.  Give them to Goodwill or people affected by Katrina; don't put them on the street. A quick time line:

The first event occurred in the last two weeks where the U.S. military obtained information from an undisclosed source that was turned over to U.S. federal agencies, spokesman Bryan Whitman said. ``The information was evaluated and turned over to federal agencies,'' Whitman said.

Iraqi security forces supported by coalition forces subsequently conducted a raid in Iraq within the last two days that turned up more information for U.S. authorities.

The information came to light last weekend from an intelligence source who told federal authorities that the three men in Iraq had planned to meet with others in New York, according to the New York Times, citing officials it didn't name. The attackers intended to use strollers, briefcases and packages to hide bombs they planned to set off on the subways, the newspaper said.

``This is the first time we have had a threat with this level of specificity,'' Bloomberg said yesterday. New York officials said that while the threat wasn't fully corroborated, he and FBI officials considered it credible enough to warrant increased precautions.

I purposely took this from Bloomberg news; many people find the timing suspicious as we are having an election for mayor in a month.  I don't.  I think that New Yorker's have proven over and over again that we think for ourselves.  I have to admit that I walked into the voting booth last time almost prepared to vote for Mark Green, but when it came time to push the lever I voted for Bloomberg because I thought that he was the best person to lead New York's recovery and I think I was right.

That doesn't mean that I plan on voting for him this time.  I lived and worked in The Bronx when Fernando Ferrar was borough president, and thought he did an incredible job leading The Bronx out from being the nation's joke.  But everytime he opens his mouth he tells another truly stupid lie.  And lying about where you and your children went to school is a bold faced lie; not a gentleman's lie.  For the record I went to New York City public schools up until the middle of Seventh Grade, when my family moved to Long Island.

I honestly don't know who I plan to vote for.  Lucia thinks that we should vote straight Democratic to prove our unity and loyalty to the Democrats.  I think New Yorkers already prove that too many times. Especially when 80% of all people who voted in Manhattan in the last presidental election voted for Kerry.  Karl Rove never forgot that as he prove in his infamous "liberals want therapy for terrorists" speech to The Conservative party.

But this isn't about Rove or me, really.  I'm not even going to get into the debate about Bloomberg wanting to wait until after a debate in Harlem that prove to some people Bloomberg disregards Black people.  I don't know enough about that debate; I do believe that Bloomberg's lacking in representing all the people of all the boroughs which is one reason that I lean toward Ferrar. 

I'm a third generation New Yorker; today all I care about is that the fourth and fifth generations of my family be allowed to have the wonderful life that I have had in the most incredible city in the world, that I think about leaving all the time, and this might just be the final straw,

The New York Times has a great lead editoral that says a lot of things I have been thinking.

Yesterday, the same day New Yorkers were warned there was a "specific threat" of a bombing on their subways, President Bush delivered what the White House promoted as a major address on terrorism. It seemed, on the surface, like a perfect topic for the moment. But his talk was not about the nation's current challenges. He delivered a reprise of his Sept. 11 rhetoric that suggested an avoidance of today's reality that seemed downright frightening.

I know you think that The Times is too liberal and too biased; screw you.  The Times reflects the thinking of most people in my city.

Yesterday, it seemed as if the president was still trying to live in 2001. It was eerie to hear him urge Americans to take terrorism seriously. There wasn't any reason to worry about that even before subway riders were being told about the threat of a terrorist attack on their commute home.

I have linked the whole editorial, but let me just quote the last paragraph

The president's inability to grow beyond his big moment in 2001 is unnerving. But the fact that his handlers continue to encourage him to milk 9/11 is infuriating. For most of us, the memories are fresh and painful. We mourn the people who died on Sept. 11, as we mourn Daniel Pearl and other Americans, not to mention innocents from other countries, who were murdered by terrorists. The administration's penchant for using them as political cover is offensive. It threatens to turn our wounds, and our current fears, into cynical and desperate spin.

The news is changing moment by moment; I can't keep up with it.  But this is the first time that New York City has issued a terrorist warning, and the federal government with its wonderful color code has down played it.

After Katrina, who am I supposed to trust?  Can I trust a president who went from saying that anybody in his administration suspected of wrong doing would be immediately relieved of duties to promoting said person--Karl Rove.

Can I trust Condi Rice who went to see Spamalot when she should have been in DC?  And don't fight me on that one.  Moxie's timeline more than shows what was happening and where people should have been.

Should I turn cynical, jaded and walk into the subway pretending that I'm not scared.  Yes early in the summer I wrote about subway searches and how I believed in them.  Make that: I truly wanted to believe that the subways can be protected.  But they can't be.  New York has too many miles of subway track; too many stations, and any search to be effective would have to be outside of each station at the same time.  Logistically that's just not possible.

Let me leave you with some quotes by a subway employee.

At the Times Square station, an M.T.A. conductor, Ray Volsario, said he was not told about the threat by supervisors, and learned about it from television news.

They don't tell us anything," he said. "We're supposed to be the eyes and ears of the subway system - why are we the last to know?"

Great question.  Everytime I begin to heal from some stupid happening something new happens.  This isn't the same country that it was four years ago.  The one thing every American and more specifically every New Yorker deserves is honesty.

And I just don't know who to believe or why I should believe anybody but my own intuition, and even that has been severaly tested too many times these past four years.

Posted by Pia Savage at 02:10 PM in Current Affairs, Economics, Politics, Television | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Monsanto's Newest Colony: Iraq

Some of the largest multinational corporations seem to think our entire planet is one big juicy pie that they can just carve up and have all for themselves.  When you think of this you probably think:  Halliburton, the oil companies, arms manufacturers.  Monsanto isn’t exactly a household name, but when you learn more about this amoral twisted bunch of sickfucks, they make Halliburton and the oil companies look like Mother Theresa.

If Monsanto could find a way, they’d suck all the oxygen out of the air so they could sell it back to us.

Monsanto is a huge agrochemical company, specializing in genetically modified (GM) crops.     They’re one of the ringleaders in pushing genetically modified crops on the world population, replacing “organic” crops that have a natural-born resistance to pests and diseases.  They’re also determined to exempt themselves from any labeling laws, so that shoppers will have no way of knowing whether the produce they’re buying is genetically modified or not.

When Monsanto gets its foot in the door, farmers eventually end up being required to purchase Monsanto’s patented seeds.  This patent means that farmers can no longer store some seeds from their own crops for next year’s planting, or purchase seeds from a local market.  They have to purchase their seeds every year from Monsanto, or face legal action for violating Monsanto‘s patent.  For Third World farmers who are barely making it, this is a crippling expense.

And that's not all.   Monsanto often files lawsuits against non-GM farmers for “violating” their patent.  Sometimes seeds get blown over from one field to the next, and the neighbor of a farmer growing GM crops will end up with some of those GM crops growing in his own field.  And Monsanto is right there with an army of lawyers, ready to sue for patent “violation.”

Conservatives who are always blithering about “too many lawsuits,” “too much litigation,” never seem to be bothered by this kind of lawsuit.  They only get upset when an individual sues a large corporation (usually after every other avenue has been closed off).  Apparently it’s just fine when a global corporation sues an individual — sort of like Goliath hitting David with a slingshot.

And now, guess what’s in store for our newly liberated farmers in Iraq.  You got it.   (Check Story #8 at this website.)

L. Paul Bremer III, the former American administrator of the Iraqi occupation, issued a directive to the Iraqi authorities before they took over last June.  This directive sets criteria for the patenting of seeds that can only be met by multinational companies like Monsanto.  Because of naturally-occurring cross-pollination, Monsanto’s GM plants will eventually wipe out native varieties.  Monsanto’s GM seeds — which all farmers will eventually be forced to buy — will be more susceptible to diseases because of the lost biological diversity.

It’s kind of ironic.  Mesopotamia (what’s now Iraq) is where agriculture is thought to have begun about 10,000 years ago.  Now a global corporation is coming in and forcing everyone to do it their way.  Iraqi farmers will be “re-educated” to grow industrial-sized harvests, for export, using American seeds.

Jeremy Smith of  The Ecologist  said:

"It is here, in around 8500 or 8000 B.C., that mankind first domesticated wheat, here that agriculture was born.  Iraqi farmers have been naturally selecting wheat varieties that work best with their climate ... and cross-pollinated them with others with different strengths.  The U.S., however, has decided that, despite 10,000 years practice, Iraqis don't know what wheat works best in their own conditions.  The people whose forefathers first mastered the domestication of wheat will now have to pay for the privilege of growing it for someone else. And with that, the world's oldest farming heritage will become just another subsidiary link in the vast American supply chain.”

Mission Accomplished.

cross-posted at Who Hijacked Our Country

Posted by Tom Harper at 06:34 AM in Economics, Politics, Science | Permalink | Comments (18) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Critical Mass

I got the opportunity to listen to some truly ignorant opinions in the past week. Not on blogs, although I read more than I few I disagreed with, but rather from regular people, discussing the tragedy wrought upon the Gulf Coast. There's a sizeable number of people who simply think New Orleans should not be rebuilt. Period.

"It's under sea level."

"That's a stupid place to build a city."

"Only idiots would build a city that way."

So I asked them, did they think abandoning the city was truly the feasible response to Katrina? Surprisingly, this was a popular idea. It's money, of course. Nobody sees why rebuilding New Orleans is worth the money. There are, after all, other places to go party. There are other places full of historical relevance, right?

History. Ay, there's the rub.

You see, historically, New Orleans is a critical city. What is not being discussed is how, even in her battered state, this is still true.

Geographically, America is split by a biggie. It's the Mississippi River. Most of the major rivers in our country dump into it which gave us the ability to move goods from the interior to the coast. Successful farmers moved excess crops and sold them; this established the monetary base for the industrialization of this country.

The Battle of New Orleans, in 1815, was fought to ensure that New Orleans, so critical to the fledgling American economy, stayed under American control. The cherry in the Louisiana Purchase was New Orleans, the rivers, and the lands around it. If the British had kept New Orleans, and her incredible value, there would have been no Louisiana Purchase.

During WWII, the value of New Orleans, as the key to moving needed industrial minerals into America and move our agricultural wealth out was understood. It's no coincidence that there was a German U-boat campaign at the mouth of the Mississippi. New Orleans was seen as a critical target during the cold war, where destruction of the city could effectively grind the country to an economic standstill.

Today, the ports of New Orleans and South Louisiana, located north and south of the city, are just as critical. The Port of South Louisiana is the largest port America has, moving 52 million tons of exported goods, (more than half are agricultural), and bringing in 57 million tons, including crude oil, coal, concrete, chemicals, and fertilizers.

A simple way to think about the New Orleans port complex is that it is where the bulk commodities of agriculture go out to the world and the bulk commodities of industrialism come in. The commodity chain of the global food industry starts here, as does that of American industrialism. If these facilities are gone, more than the price of goods shifts: The very physical structure of the global economy would have to be reshaped. Consider the impact to the U.S. auto industry if steel doesn't come up the river, or the effect on global food supplies if U.S. corn and soybeans don't get to the markets.  -- Stratfor

Shipping these commodities using other ways of conveyance isn't feasible. The goods shipped down the river system are heavy and inexpensive, which means they have a low value-to-weight ratio. Another reality is that the nation's businesses and transport systems were built and geared toward the developed systems of barges and ports in place on the Mississippi. What I mean is that we built the national network of railroads to complement the river system, not replace it. Attempting to move the tonnage of material via other transportation methods won't be possible. It's just way too much, it's too heavy, and doing so would add astronomically to the cost.

Aren't geopolitics fun? Rivers aren't subject to rhetoric, spin or deniability. They just flow, and that flow drives a significant portion of the American economy.

Another driver of the economy is the worker, and this is where we are about to get into trouble in New Orleans. Ports need lots of people with skills; so do oil fields and pipelines. We need the people in position to keep our economic flow going. They need homes, grocery stores, shops, auto parts, mechanics, dentists, lawyers, H&R block and McDonalds, to name a few.

We not only need to rebuild a safer New Orleans, but we need to do it quickly. If we abandon these people while we horse around over the reconstruction, they will leave to further their personal survival. You're on your own. Our government was pretty clear on that. They showed it the way they reacted to the city after the storm. It's evident in how they are talking about the survivors, blaming them for their suffering, implying time was not of the essence.

The displacement of population is the crisis that New Orleans faces. It is also a national crisis, because the largest port in the United States cannot function without a city around it. The physical and business processes of a port cannot occur in a ghost town, and right now, that is what New Orleans is. It is not about the facilities, and it is not about the oil. It is about the loss of a city's population and the paralysis of the largest port in the United States.  -- Stratfor

The rivers are a permanent reality in the American economic landscape. We built New Orleans for an essential purpose. Sure, it's not an optimal spot, but it is a necessary one. We would do well to heed the history, and make a serious effort to restore a livable city in support of the ports we depend on. Failure is not an option.

Posted by Jet N. at 12:01 AM in Economics | Permalink | Comments (23) | TrackBack

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Wal-Mart Revisited

Oh my god I wish I hadn’t tackled this issue. Not because I don’t think it is interesting, but because if there is a hell (which I doubt seriously) it will consist of reading economic impact studies. I think I have now read about 20 impact studies about Wal-Mart on various areas and all I can say is…

The evidence is mixed.

Yep that’s right. For every paper claiming that there is whole scale destruction of the Mom and Pop stores, a reduction in pay and benefits and a huge increase in service costs (police, fire, EMS) there is another paper or study showing that in fact those are not real issues.

<p>It’s enough to drive you mad. So here is what I’ve decided. Wal-Mart is neither good nor bad, they are what they are.</p>
<p>The main positive for Wal-Mart is cost savings. They do save consumers money. Most studies show this to be true. The <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/03/opinion/03ghemawat.html?n=Top%2FOpinion%2FEditorials%20and%20Op-Ed%2FOp-Ed%2FContributors">latest study </a>by
Pankaj Ghemawat and Ken A. Mark (yeah the study that was in the NYT)
show the direct economic savings to consumers from Wal-Mart is 16
Billion dollars with the majority of that going to the rural poor.
According to the study’s authors</p>
<blockquote><p> Wal-Mart
operates two-and-a-half times as much selling space per inhabitant in
the poorest third of states as in the richest third. And within that
poorest third of states, 80 percent of Wal-Mart’s square footage is in
the 25 percent of ZIP codes with the greatest number of poor
households. Without the much-maligned Wal-Mart, the rural poor, in
particular, would pay several percentage points more for the food and
other merchandise that after housing is their largest household expense</p></blockquote>
is hard to argue that isn’t positive. It also means you can’t compare
Wal-Mart to Target, CostCo, or most other major retailers because their
business model focuses on the urban areas.</p>
<p><a href="http://www.macleans.ca/topstories/business/article.jsp?content=20050725_109503_109503">Other studies show</a>
the overall economic to be 100 Billion Dollar savings to the American
consumers. In other words every family saves about $600.00 a year
because Wal-Mart lowers prices everywhere. As Bruce Bartlelett, former
deputy assistant secretary for economic policy at the U.S. Treasury
Department puts it “If you’re stuck with a low income and you can
reduce the amount you pay for basic items, then your real income goes
<p>Wal-Mart also provides tax revenue for a city. Studies
show that the town in which the Wal-Mart is located can expect to see a
rise in tax revenue over a three year period - even with the variety of
concessions or incentives they may have to give. However, other
surrounding areas may lose revenue because shoppers go to Wal-Mart
instead. Is this good or bad? I’d say it is neither. For that town it
is good, for the other town s it is bad. That is no different than when
any other big store moves in - it attracts customers (or goes out of
business). To me, that’s just competition.</p>
<p>Closing of the Mom
and Pop type of store is also a mixed bag as far as the evidence is
concerened. In some cases, there are claims that 40% of the stores will
close and the town left with a ghetto of empty buildings. Other studies
show that new businesses tend to open up around the Wal-Mart and
replace the ones that have closed. Shops that do not compete directly
against Wal-Mart or who provide items or services Wal-Mart does not,
tend to benefit from the new store, while direct competitors often lose
<p>There is the issue of low pay and “low” benefits, but
we have talked about that at length, and at the end of the day as long
as Wal-Mart can pay someone a wage and attract workers, they will.
Right or wrong, that is how a market economy works. Workers are free to
unionize, and Wal-Mart is free to shut down it’s stores. If enough
stores unionize, that won’t be a viable option.</p>
<p>There are a
litany of other complaints - the stores are ugly (who cares - so are
most of the shoppers, but no one argues we need to get rid of them),
they cause heavy traffic congestion, and that they re a blight on the
environment. The congestion I’ll give you, although it is EXACTLY that
traffic that allows other retailers to move into the area and grow
along with Wal-Mart. The environment is also not black and white
because Wal-Mart has now taken steps to design stores to be much more
environmentally friendly (time will tell) and as mentioned previously
has <a href="http://www.organicconsumers.org/BTC/greenwash041505.cfm">embarked upon a program</a>
to purchase land equal to the size of its footprint (stores, parking
lots and distribution centers) over the next 10 years for conservation
<p>Caving into bad publicity vs. altruism? Maybe but at the end of the day that is a hell of a lot of land being preserved.</p>
the end my conclusion remains the same, that Wal-Mart is not an “evil”
company, just one that found a winning strategy and that strategy has
benefits as well as liabilities (like any other decision). You may not
agree with it, but 255 billion dollars worth of sales tend to see it my
<p>And this is where my warning comes to my fellow Liberals.
Wal-Mart is NOT an issue you will win with. If bashing Wal-Mart is the
a key plank in our party’s campaign strategy, kiss off 06, 08, 10 and
beyond. Rural America likes Wal-Mart. Middle America likes Wal-Mart.
The poor like Wal-Mart and the wealthy LOVE Wal-Mart. Labor (or more
accurately certain unions) hates Wal-Mart, but considering the sad
state of the labor movement, that is hardly comforting. Tangle with
“Guaranteed Low Prices” at your peril.</p>
<p>If you really want to
do something about Wal-Mart beyond not shopping there - get out and get
active and lets make changes that make the NEED to work at Wal-Mart
less prevalent. Lets fix education. Lets fix the health care system so
that people are not beholden to low pay retail jobs for benefits. Lets
seriously increase funding and support for science and technology. Lets
balance the budget and fix our finances. That will jump-start the kind
of job growth that America needs. Not low-end, low-pay retail, but jobs
that will help our economy compete now and in the future.</p>

<p>(cross posted at <a href="http://www.crankyliberal.com">The Cranky Liberal Pages</a>)<br />

Posted by Cranky Liberal at 09:12 AM in Economics | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Thursday, August 04, 2005

The "Evils" of Wal-Mart: Part 1

Today is the day I start to tackle Wal-Mart. As a liberal, I know I am supposed to hate them or I don’t get my Hillary ‘08 button, but I don’t. I don’t like to shop there- too cramped and dirty - but I don’t dislike the company itself. I just can’t hold a grudge against the company because of their pay, benefit plan or low prices - I see most of those criticism as overblown or off the mark. If anything I think that Wal-Mart has a net positive effect on the economy.

Wal-Mart employees roughly 1.3 million people in the United States and 1.7 million people worldwide. They had sales last year of 288 billion dollars and made a profit of 10 billion dollars. The average wage for a full time Wal-Mart employee is $9.68 per hour.

At first blush that seems like a lot of profit for a company paying its workers only $9.68 an hour. However in reality this is only $5883.00 dollars of profit per employee or $2.82 of profit per employee hour. That means any significant jump in wages will quickly erode Wal-Mart’s profit. Companies that don’t make a profit don’t stay in business.

Well maybe they shouldn’t make as much profit you might say - treat their employees to a bigger share of the pie. Maybe. I have no problem if Wal-Mart decided it was better for their business to pay their workers a higher wager - but companies will pay what the market demands. 1.7 million people around the globe work for Wal-Mart (yeah I know I keep bringing that number up, but it’s a huge number). They are not having an issue filling their job needs, so their pay must be adequate for the LEVEL of job they are hiring for. Remember this is a retail store clerk, not head attorney or Dewey, Cheatum and Howe. Any compensation higher than the market level would have to be offset by increased employee value. Would this happen? Maybe, maybe not. But remember - Wal-mart employees are free to find higher paying low-skill jobs if they can.

What about medical benefits. One of the largest complaints that I hear is that Wal-Mart has an obligation to provide better medical coverage for their workers. They claim that Wal-Mart puts undue pressure on state health-care plans because so many of their employees need assistance. On the surface this is a compelling argument, but when you dig a little deeper it starts to fall apart.

First - who works at Wal-Mart and where would they get medical coverage if they worked somewhere else? If you assume that Wal-Mart’s benefit plan creates this burden for the state you would have to accept that the workers would be able to find better benefits if they didn’t work at Wal-Mart. Once again, not to pick on the average Wal-Mart employee but this is not necesarrily the case. Many of these low-skilled workers would have no benefits in other jobs creating the same situation. The claim that Wal-Mart causes the issue is not valid.

Second Wal-Mart does offer a benefit plan for its workers. While not fantastic, it is pretty standard among the industry. According to Wal-Mart they cover over nearly half (47%) of their employees in the States. There is a $35.00 a month for  self coverage and $141.00 a month for family coverage. As a percentage of income this is high, but relative to most benefit packages this is not abnormal sum.Face it, medical costs are outrageous and are killing American companies left and right. That isn’t a Wal-Mart issue, but a societal issue. Remember, Wal-Mart is already paying a large amount per insured employee above and beyond the employee contribution. If Wal-Mart reduced the employee cost by only $10.00 a month it would cost the company $73,320,000 - assuming no one else enrolled..

What kills me is the way Wal-Mart detractors try to spin the benefits numbers to make it seem that Wal-Mart is causing the price of medical care to skyrocket.. Just look at the United Food and Commercial Workers Website and you can see how the facts are skewed (those skewed facts are the ones you hear so loudly too)

High premiums and deductibles keep more than half of Wal-Mart workers from participating in the company health plan. While the national average of workers covered by employer health insurance is 67 percent, only about 47 percent of Wal-Mart’s employees are covered by the company’s health care plan.

The problem is you shouldn’t compare Wal-Mart with the “national average,” but rather the average in it’s industry. The industry average is 36%. It also isn’t fair to say that it is the high premiums that keep over half the people away. Some people don’t need the benefits - people whose parents or spouse already have a plan wouldn’t take the plan. Why would they? Not the Union that has lost a ton of it’s revenue and influence wants you to know that. No no bias here folks.

More than 60 percent of Wal-Mart employees–600,000 people–are forced to get health insurance coverage from the government or through spouses’ plans—or live without any health insurance. Wal-Mart shifts the cost of health insurance to taxpayers and other employers, driving up the health costs for all of us.

Once again they make the spurious claim that Wal-Mart foists the health care burden onto others. However as we have said, many of these people are either already covered elsewhere (so people opt out) or had no health care to begin with.

Recent reports show that Wal-Mart tops the list of companies in many states whose employees and/or their children rely on taxpayers to foot the bill for health care:
In Alabama, Wal-Mart employees with children on Medicaid cost the state between $5.8 million and $8.2 million to cover 3,864 children.
Wal-Mart workers in California rely on the state taxpayers for about $32 million annually in health-related services.
            In Tennessee, almost 10,000 Wal-Mart employees are on the state’s expanded Medicaid program.
In Georgia, over 10,261 children of Wal-Mart employees are enrolled in the state’s PeachCare program for health insurance in families meeting federal poverty criteria.

Think about those numbers. Once again the implication is Wal-Mart is responsible for the states having to cover these people because they refuse to. Not to sound harsh, but where else are these folks going to work to get benefits? That there are lots of poor people who can’t get high paying jobs and good benefits isn’t debated, but that it is somehow Wal-Mart’s fault is crazy.

I want to talk more about the impact of Wal-Mart next week, but this is a good place to stop for part one. There is stil lots to be said about their anti-union stance, their impact on the community, and how Wal-Mart effects the average consumer. I am not - NOT - trying to say Wal-Mart is a great place to work. I don’t want my son aspiring to being a cashier there. What I am saying is that the truth behind the numbers shows that Wal-Mart is far from the oppressive beast people make it out to be. No one forces 1.7 million folks to work there.


cross posted at the Cranky Liberal Pages

Posted by Cranky Liberal at 06:51 AM in Economics | Permalink | Comments (17) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Economic Hit Men

John Perkins is an economist and was a high-ranking member of the international banking community.  He now has a book,   Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.    The book describes how he was a highly paid professional who helped the U.S. cheat third world countries out of trillions of dollars.

Perkins began the book over 20 years ago.  He says: 

“The book was to be dedicated to the presidents of two countries…Jaime Roldós, president of Ecuador, and Omar Torrijos, president of Panama. Both had just died in fiery crashes. Their deaths were not accidental. They were assassinated because they opposed that fraternity of corporate, government, and banking heads whose goal is global empire. We Economic Hit Men failed to bring Roldós and Torrijos around, and the other type of hit men, the CIA-sanctioned jackals who were always right behind us, stepped in.”

The job of an economic hit man is to build up the American Empire.  That means creating situations where as many resources as possible flow into our country; our corporations.  This has created the largest empire in history.  He says:

“It's been done over the last 50 years since World War II with very little military might, actually. It's only in rare instances like Iraq where the military comes in as a last resort. This empire, unlike any other in the history of the world, has been built primarily through economic manipulation, through cheating, through fraud, through seducing people into our way of life, through the economic hit men. I was very much a part of that.”

The first notch in America’s bedpost was Iran in the early 1950s.  Their elected leader was overthrown and replaced with the infamous Shah of Iran.  (And yes this does have a lot to do with the Iranian hostage situation 25 years later.)  In this case the government was overthrown by the CIA. 

The American government realized the advantages of this type of overthrow:  no open warfare, no conflict with Russia or any other country who might object.  The only drawback was that if some of the CIA agents were captured and exposed as U.S. government agents, things could get a little, uh, “awkward.”  So after the Iranian overthrow, this type of work was done by private American companies, whose employees could not be traced to any government operation.

The most common method of this economic warfare is to grant a loan to a poor country.  A huge loan, a loan way too big for that country to possibly repay.  A large contractor — Bechtel, Halliburton, etc., you know the players — would get its foot in the door by building roads, power plants, whatever the country needed.  The government of this country is then instructed to pay back the loan to this contractor.  When the government is unable to repay the entire loan and goes into debt, the contractor has them over a barrel.

At this point we can practically blackmail the country into handing over its resources (oil, minerals, whatever) to American corporations.

And that’s the pattern.

During the energy crisis of the 1970s, our government realized Saudi Arabia was the key player.  The American and Saudi governments worked out a deal:  the House of Saud would send most of their petro-dollars to the United States and invest them in U.S. securities.  The Treasury Dept. would use the interest from these securities to hire American companies to build Saudi Arabia — new cities, new infrastructure.  In return, Saudi Arabia has kept the price of oil low.  Well, “low” enough to keep Americans happily buying millions of gas guzzlers.

Now, remember those Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq?  Hahahahahaha.  Here’s what really happened:  We tried to use the same manipulative tactics with Iraq that had worked so well with Saudi Arabia and other third world countries.  And Saddam Hussein wouldn’t play.  When the economic hit men aren’t able to “convince” a third world country to play ball, further steps must be taken.

The CIA can induce a coup by stirring up rebellion among the populace.  This didn’t work in Iraq — Hussein’s grip was too powerful.  Next step —  assassinations.  This didn’t work either.  Hussein had too many bodyguards and a vast network of “doubles.”

When these backup plans all fail, what’s next?  Military invasion.  As John Perkins says: 

“So the third line of defense, if the economic hit men and the jackals fail, the next line of defense is our young men and women, who are sent in to die and kill, which is what we’ve obviously done in Iraq.”

Why did Perkins spend twenty years “working on” this book?  The money, power and prestige were just too seductive.  It was 9/11 that finally changed his mind.  He says:

“But when 9/11 struck, I had a change of heart. I knew the story had to be told because what happened at 9/11 is a direct result of what the economic hit men are doing. And the only way that we're going to feel secure in this country again and that we're going to feel good about ourselves is if we use these systems we’ve put into place to create positive change around the world. I really believe we can do that. I believe the World Bank and other institutions can be turned around and do what they were originally intended to do, which is help reconstruct devastated parts of the world. Help —  genuinely help poor people.”

OK, now before you come screaming into the Comment section, remember the above paragraph is a quote.  I personally am not playing blame-the-victim and saying 9/11 was America’s fault.  But that quote is the perspective of a high ranking American economist who was closely affiliated with the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and international contractors.

Whether or not the United States should be helping poorer countries is open to debate (and not the focus of this article).  But using the rest of the world as just so much chattel and raw material for America’s corporate empire is just plain wrong.

Cross-posted at Who Hijacked Our Country

Posted by Tom Harper at 12:01 AM in Economics, Military, Politics | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack

Friday, April 15, 2005

Who really benefits?

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of the Treasury issued a Fact Sheet about President Bush's tax relief.  Their first claim was

110 million American taxpayers will see their taxes decline by an average of $1,716.

It's misleading.  It's misleading because it averages tax cuts across the board without showing how they are distributed. 

For example, the estimated tax cut for the people in the middle 20 percent income bracket is $742.  Someone in the top 1 percent income bracket will see a tax cut of $34,948, while those with income over $1,000,000 will see a tax cut of $103,086.  (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 4/13/05)

No matter how hard I looked, I couldn't find the tax cuts for those whose incomes fall in the lower end of the spectrum.  At least not for this year.  I was able to find information for last years figures. 

In 2004, the lowest 20% of income earners saw a tax cut of $230.  The next 20% of income earners saw a tax cut of $720.  (Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, 9/13/04)

You might be thinking, "So what?  The top income earners make more so they should get a larger dollar tax cut."  True.  But when you look at the percentage of growth in after tax income, you'll see that it is not an even distribution.  The middle 20% saw a growth of 2.6%, the top 20% saw a growth of 4.6%, and those earning over $1 million saw a growth of 5.4%.  (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 4/13/05)

The top 20% of households will receive about 68% of the tax-cut benefits in 2005. 

As for the figures I couldn't find.  I can predict that those in the lowest and lower 20% households saw their tax cuts go down this year.  I am able to make that prediction based on a comparison of the middle 20% households tax cuts for '04 and '05.  In 2004, the middle 20% saw an average tax cut of $980.  This year the average tax cut for that group is $720. 

By the way, when you compare the average tax cuts seen by those making over $1 million in 2004 and 2005 you'll see that their tax increased.  In 2004 the average tax cut for this group was $40,990 while this year it is $103, 086.   

The vast majority of people reading this will come from households in the middle 20% income range.  Just ask yourself, "Who really benefits from the tax cuts Bush is so proud of?" 

Cross posted on Can't Keep Quiet!

Posted by Mulligan at 09:29 PM in Current Affairs, Economics | Permalink | Comments (37) | TrackBack